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VOL. 132 | NO. 50 | Friday, March 10, 2017

Kelsey’s School Voucher Bill Faces Legislative Showdown

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – A showdown is looming over a pilot voucher program targeting Shelby County Schools after the legislation moved out of Senate and House panels this week with unanimous votes.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, the Germantown Republican pushing the measure, expects pushback, but he considers approval by two groups of legislators a major victory. It will be heard Tuesday, March 14, in the House Education Administration & Planning Committee and in the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee.

“This bill has never passed a committee unanimously, so I’m really thrilled with the momentum that it’s got right now. And I’m excited about passing it through the House,” Kelsey said.

Although he has co-sponsorship by two Memphis Democrats, Sen. Reginald Tate and Rep. John DeBerry, Kelsey can expect opposition from other Shelby County legislators such as Republican Rep. Ron Lollar of Bartlett and Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis.

Parkinson, who has been highly critical of the legislation since Kelsey proposed it this year, said his strategy of educating people about the measure’s impact will continue.

“Again, if it’s not good enough for the entire state, why is it good enough for only Shelby County?” Parkinson said.

The legislation for a five-year pilot program that would gradually increase the number of low-income students up to 5,000 in the final year using public funds to attend private schools would affect only Shelby County Schools, which has some 30 schools on the state’s priority list for failing to minimum standards.

The legislation’s impact on the state budget in the first year, fiscal 2017-18, is estimated at $330,400, then $230,400 in subsequent years for administrative and other costs. Another $8.8 million, about $7,000 per child, would follow students to private schools in the first year, increasing based on the number of participating students, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

The program would be monitored by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability, and private schools falling significantly below achievement expectations two years in a row would be suspended from participating, according to a Republican Caucus statement.

Lollar, nevertheless, said, “All they’re trying to do is like that old fox trying to get his nose under the fence. They just want that to open up to the world. I’m opposed to it more than ever.”

He pointed out the Shelby County Commission and every school district in Shelby County voted to oppose the voucher bill, evidence it has minimal support across the county.

One of the problems with the legislation is that it doesn’t require students who move from public to private schools to take the standard TNReady assessment, Lollar said.

“That was the whole point of doing this, to put everybody on the same page. But it’s not doing it,” Lollar said.

The bill states that schools would administer state tests or nationally recognized norm-referenced tests approved by the state Board of Education measuring academic progress.

Memphis pastor LaShundra Richmond, an educator who transferred her fourth-grade daughter to a private school, testified in the favor of the measure this week.

“So often we hear the narrative around low-performing schools and low-performing students, but it really boils down to what best fits the needs of the individual student, and I believe Senate Bill 161 is an opportunity to empower parents to receive access to an option they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford,” said Richmond, who has advocated for the Achievement School District with the Black Alliance for Educational Options, according to the statement.

Similarly to Lollar, though, the Tennessee Education Association is concerned approval in Memphis would be the first step in spreading vouchers across the state, further undermining public education and spending millions of dollars without good results.

“We think it’s a bad step for Tennessee to start using public school funding for private school tuition,” said TEA spokesman Jim Wrye.

Shelby County already offers more choices for parents and students than any system in Tennessee through its general transfer rules, Wrye pointed out. He also noted Shelby County has 45 charter schools, many of them run by the Achievement School District, which are required to meet the same accountability standards as public schools.

Wrye predicted the bill will fare well in the House Education Committee, which is chaired by the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican. It could run into more trouble if it makes it to the House Finance committee.

Kelsey contends those “focused on money and adults are always going to be opposed to giving children more chances.”

He argues those don’t draw many votes in the General Assembly where, “We’re concerned about what’s best for children, not what’s best for adults.”

Long a proponent of opportunity scholarships, Kelsey says scholarships he received to attend St. George’s Independent School and Memphis University School were critical to shaping his life. He says St. George’s is interested in participating in the pilot program, if it gains approval, and says MUS already provides several scholarships and could use a $7,000 scholarship to help pay for children to enroll.

“Unfortunately, we’ve got parents standing in line (in Memphis) for hours trying to get their kids into another school, and I think we’ve got to provide those parents with another avenue,” Kelsey said. “This is just a pilot program. We’re going to see whether it works once and for all.

“It’s time to put this discussion to bed and see whether opportunity scholarships really can work for Tennessee. I think it can, but if it doesn’t, we’ll end it, and we won’t have this discussion anymore.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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